The following is an open letter to Charles LeMaistre, M.D., MD Anderson’s second full-time president, from Ron DePinho, M.D., the current president.
Dear Dr. LeMaistre,
On this historic anniversary, I’m writing to thank you for delivering a wake-up call to Americans. I’m referring to your role in the 1960s¹ on the U.S. surgeon general’s panel to investigate the health impacts of smoking. The result of your work — the first U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health — transformed America’s view of cigarettes.
As of February, that report is 50 years old, but like many of your cancer-fighting efforts, its impact not only is still felt, it continues to grow.
The report led to mandatory safety labeling² on tobacco products and a ban on all radio and TV cigarette ads³. Most importantly, its ripple effect led to a significant decline in the number of smokers⁴ in America. As of today, that rate has been cut in half. Sadly, smoking remains our country’s leading cause of preventable deaths⁵. Approximately 440,000 Americans die each year because of smoking-related diseases6. It’s also linked to approximately 30% of all cancer-related deaths and nearly 90% of lung cancer deaths.
To this day, your vision, passion and commitment to end cancer resonate strongly in the halls of MD Anderson. Most notably, your unwavering focus on combating cancer caused by smoking has become one of the pillars of our mission. It’s reflected in our past, present and future efforts.
In the years since your presidency, our faculty has carried on your legacy. They’ve assisted the surgeon general with several follow-up reports on smoking. Our research has remained focused on developing new interventions, including the prescriptions that help smokers quit7. As you know, smoking is a complex issue, but our measures of success remain remarkably simple: longer lives8 and more time with loved ones.
But we must do more, as I’m sure you would agree.
We have to fight cancer on several fronts: We need improved treatments and better diagnostic methods aimed at catching cancer early.
We need to educate and empower people to change their lifestyles to prevent cancer altogether. That’s why we established the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk — stemming from prevention efforts you first launched. Through this work, we’re identifying the best methods for convincing future generations to avoid tobacco products9. We’re using that knowledge to develop programs such as ASPIRE, a school curriculum taught in classrooms across Texas and several other states to keep cigarettes out of the hands of kids.
We plan to go even further. In a few short months, as part of our Moon Shots Program, MD Anderson will unveil the EndTobacco® plan. We’re doubling down efforts to snuff out smoking in Houston, Texas and as far beyond as we can reach.
But we can’t do it alone. We need lawmakers to write new legislation aimed at making cigarette use a thing of the past. We need increased access to cancer screenings, particularly in underserved communities where tobacco use is high.
We need greater involvement in our classrooms. Approximately 82% of adult smokers began smoking as children10. Most importantly, we need parents to join the fight. As a parent of three, I refuse to accept the idea that our children, and perhaps even their children, should be forced to witness the tragic yet entirely preventable cost of diseases caused by smoking11.
Finally, as one of the institutions leading the cancer fight, we must set an example. Years ago, we were proud to be the first major comprehensive cancer center in the country to become smoke free. In the future, we must continue to promote healthier lifestyles for our employees and volunteers.
You have left us an unprecedented legacy, and I am honored to follow in your footsteps. As the current MD Anderson president, I pledge to help finish the remarkable journey the surgeon general, you and your colleagues began five decades ago.
Let’s hope that together we can extinguish smoking before another 50 years have passed.
Ron DePinho, M.D.
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
1. Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service was published in 1964. LeMaistre served on the advisory committee.
2. In response to congressional legislation, beginning in 1966, health warnings are printed on cigarette packs that read, “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”
3. In 1970, Congress passed legislation banning cigarette advertising on radio and television.
4. Since 1964, the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped from 42% to 18%.*
5. Smoking remains the largest cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S.
- 20 million Americans have died because of smoking in the 50 years since the surgeon general’s first report.
- 2.5 million of those deaths are nonsmokers who died from diseases caused by secondhand smoke.*
6. More than 440,000 deaths annually, including deaths from secondhand smoke.
Each year, nearly 50,000 deaths are caused by secondhand smoke.
7. Nicorette became available by prescription in 1984. Over the counter sales of nicotine patches and gums were launched in 1996.
8. On average, nonsmokers live 10 years longer than smokers. That’s 3,650 days. That’s 87,600 hours.*
9. If current rates continue, 5.6 million Americans younger than 18 who are alive today are projected to die prematurely from smoking-related disease.*
10. In the U.S., 3 million middle and high school students smoke.*
11. Smoking causes:
- 32% of coronary heart disease deaths
- 79% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
- Colorectal and liver cancer (and increases the failure rate of cancer treatment), diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, immune system weakness, impaired fertility and erectile dysfunction.*
* The Health Consequences of Smoking — 50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General, 2014